While in Phnom Penh, our priority was to visit the Tuol Sleng museum and killing fields.
We hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day who dropped us off at the museum first and was to wait for us to then bring us to the killing fields, which is a bit out of town.
Once a high school, Tuol Sleng was taken over in 1975 by Pol Pot’s security forces who transformed the classrooms into torture chambers and renamed the facility security prison S-21. At the height of its activity, some 100 victims were killed every day (including women and children).
All the buildings we visited with the help of a trainee guide were meant to detain, interrogate and torture. Once a confession was obtained of whatever crime they did not commit, the prisoners were sent to Choeung Ek killing site (known as the killing fields) to be exterminated. It was chilling and emotional to see the prison cells, torture rooms and recorded “confessions” as well as photographs of all the prisoners that died.
The Khmer Rouge electrified the barbed wire (above) that surounded the cells. They also used metal beds (below) to aid in electric torture. Many of the cells were tiny and prisoners were put in leg irons and forced to always sleep on their backs.
Out of the thousands who died there, only 7 men made it out alive when the prison was liberated by Vietnamese forces. They managed to stay alive through a special skill they each had (mechanics, painting…etc) that was needed by the officers. We met 2 of these men who are still alive today and are now in their late eighties. They go back to the prison/museum every day and try to sell their stories in form of a book to make ends meet. We bought the 2 books but have not started reading them yet.
After a few hours at the museum, we exited to find a hoard of tuk tuk drivers waiting outside. They all waived at us, one more vehemently than others, and so we assumed it was our driver (we had barely taken a look at him as we hopped into his tuk tuk earlier in the morning, so we were not 100% positive). We were a bit hungry by then so asked him to bring us to a restaurant nearby. We felt bad that he was going to wait outside for us to eat so we invited him along. He seemed surprised but very happy to join. As he was sitting across the table from us, our suspicions grew. Was it really our hired tuk tuk driver? We would feel very bad if we had left our real driver behind still waiting for us at the museum while we were feeding this new guy. So we decided to test him with a few questions: “where are we going next?” He did not seem to understand the question which was even more worrisome as the gentleman we had talked to in the morning did speak a little bit of English, we thought. James decided to go back to the museum (2 mins walk) to make sure. In the meantime, Sylvie tried to make conversation and looked for any clues.
James came back a bit later and said he could not see anyone waiting who seemed to fit the bill so we decided to have the restaurant owner plainly ask him in Khmer a few test questions, as embarrassing as it was. It turned out it was really him, phew! We were relieved as we got on his tuk tuk after lunch to head to the killing fields.
The Choeung Ek genocidal center (or killing fields) was equally disturbing although the surroundings (green, peaceful with lots of birds chirping) were a stark contrast with what had occurred there.
Tens of thousands of people died there, usually prisoners from the S-21 prison, often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets and pushed into mass graves. Skulls, bones, teeth, and left over clothes are kept there today in the memorial, or stupa, that was erected in 1988. There are also many areas where pieces of clothing, bones, and teeth appear in the soil as erosion exposes them, making the experience that much more unforgettable.
It was a difficult day to see all that horror, but as a significant part of the Cambodian recent history, we felt it was important for us to go see those sites and learn as much as we could what the khmer people went through.
The next day and a half was spent hitting the markets (central and Russian) and getting things done (laundry, shopping etc) in preparation for the next big leg of our trip – Australia.
We also had some time to meet with Olivier (the French guy we had met in Koh Rong and ran into in Kampot) and had some drinks and dinner with him one night.
We loved Cambodia and would gladly return. People in Cambodia don’t seem to be “polluted” yet by tourism (except a bit in Siem Reap) and display a genuine and warm smile and “hello”. As in many countries, we wish we had more time to explore and absorb more of the culture.